Dec 9, 2009

The GM denial industry -- Cornell University, GM companies and agricultural scientists

For the past few days I have been debating the GM crops issue with representatives from the biotech industry and agricultural scientists at public debates/discussions in New Delhi and Bangalore. I started with a public debate in New Delhi on Dec 3 organised by the Institute for Economic Growth (IEG), which had Ron Herring of the Cornell University; Shanthu Shantaharam, Visiting Prof, Princeton; Mahendra Dev, Chairman Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP); K C Bansal, Prof at the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology, Delhi; and J V Meenakshi, Prof Delhi School of Economics.

(From left) Narayan Reddy, organic farmer; Devinder Sharma, chairman of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security; T.M. Manjunath, former director of Monsanto Research; and Ramanjini Gowda, Head of the Department of Biotechnology, UAS, Bangalore, at a public discussion in Bangalore on Monday.
(pic from The Hindu, Dec 8)

This was followed by a public debate at the Bangalore International Club on Dec 4, where I shared the dias with Dr K K Narayanan, Managing Director of Methelix Life Sciences, Bangalore. The next public debate that I participated was at the Institute for Agricultural Technologies (IAT) at Bangalore on Dec 7. Organised by a Bangalore-based NGO, Civic, it had four panelists: Dr T M Manjunath, former Director of Research, Monsanto; Dr P H Ramanjinigowda, Head, Depart of Biotechnology, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore; the distinguished organic farmer Dr Narayan Reddy and I.

I will not go into the merits and demerits of the arguments raised, but what I feel there is a dire need to answer some of the commonly asked questions. I am framing below four arguments from the proponents of GM technology that emerged in these interactions. To borrow from what George Monbiot says (he said it in the context of the ongoing debate about Climate Change), and to relate it to the debate on GM crops, it is quite obvious that a 'denial industry' is fast at work. This refers to those who are paid to say that GM crops/foods pose no threat to human health and environment. As he says, and I agree, the great majority of people who believe this have not been paid, have been duped. 

You keep stumbling across familiar phrases and concepts which you can see every day on the comment threads. These comments are often planted by PR companies and hired experts. I wasn't therefore taken by surprise to hear the same arguments again and again. Let us look at some of the prominent arguments.

Argument 1: There are over 1 billion people living in hunger worldwide, and their number will swell to over 2 billion by the end of 2020. Therefore the world needs to produce more, and need to adopt GM crops.

It is true that the world has 1.02 billion people living in hunger. I feel this is an understatement, and the number of hungry is several times more than what the FAO computes. But given the figures of the hungry population, does it mean that there is shortage of food in the world? The answer is No. We have 6.7 billion people on Earth today, and the food we produce in the world today is good enough for 11.5 billion people, which means we produce twice the quantity of food that we require today.

Why there is hunger in the world is because one part of the world is eating more and the other part of the world is left to starve. It is a political question, and needs a political will to eradicate hunger.

Argument 2: GM crops produce more. 

This is untrue. There is no GM crop in the world that gives a higher yield than the existing crop varieties. In fact, the USDA data itself shows that the productivity of GM corn and GM soybean is much less than the existing varieties. So when scientists tell you that GM crops produce more, please be sure they have been paid to say so. They are simply lying.

Arguement 3: GM crops (like Bt cotton/Bt corn) produce their own toxins, and thereby reduce the use of pesticides making the environment (and food) safe. 

This is also untrue. Although Bt cotton/Bt corn produce their own toxins, and act more or less like a biological pesticide, all they can do is to reduce crop losses. But even here, we find that the pesticides reduction is only in first or second year, and subsequently farmers have to apply more pesticides. Several studies have shown that in the US also, pesticides use has not decreased.

A classic example here is of the Bt cotton cultivation in China. Bt cotton introduction in China was hailed as a 'silver-bullet.' I remember the scientific journal Science had done a report detailing out how stupendous the gain was for the Chinese farmers from the adoption of Bt cotton. Even then I had challenged the analysis saying that it was done for the first 2-years only whereas the Chinese government did know that pesticides usage had multiplied in the next two years. In other words, four years after the introduction of Bt cotton in China, pesticides use was back to the normal.

A latest study was Cornell University and a Chinese institute have conclusively shown that pesticides usage has increased by 8 per cent over the normal, and Chinese farmers cultivating Bt cotton are actually incurring losses. The study also brings out the change in the pest population with some new insects appearing on the horizon.

In India, the government has not allowed a similar study to be done on Bt cotton. And even the analysis done by CESS Hyderabad that brings out the economics of Bt cotton is fundamentally flawed. I am willing to debate with Mr Mahendra Dev, who is presently the Chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), and who did the study on behalf of CESS.

The National Centre for Agricultural Economic Research (NCAP) in New Delhi has now been entrusted with the responsibility to work out the socio-economics of Bt cotton. There is no need to wait for their study. We already know the conclusions that the NCAP study would arrive at.

Economists are no better than the agricultural scientists. If they had done their job honestly, Indian farmers wouldn't have been left high and dry. Agriculture wouldn't have been unremunerative, forcing the farmers to quite in increasing numbers.

Arguement 4: The regulatory mechanism has already evaluated the performance of Bt brinjal, and we should have faith in the system

This is a very dangerous argument. In India (like in the US), the GEAC operates more or less like a rubber stamp for the GM industry. Those who have the most to lose if the science is proved to be wrong are trying their best to emerge as champions of GM science. As George Monbiot says, those who have perversely sought to justify the secretive and chummy ethos that some of the studies GEAC observations reveal. If science is not transparent and accountable, it is not science.

I fully endorse this statement. Although made in the context of climate change, it holds true for GM crops research.

You have already seen my critique of the GEAC report on this blog. You probably already know that CNN-IBN has in one of its exclusive reports quoted the chairman of the EC-II accepting that adequate tests have not been done to know whether Bt brinjal will be safe or not.

And finally a word of advice to American experts like Ronald Herring from Cornell University, who had earlier headed the Department of Government, and has now emerged as a spokesperson for GM technology.

The US, which is the citadel of GM crops in the world, has not been able to solve its own hunger. At the recent World Food Summit at Rome in mid-November, it was clearly brought out that hunger in the US is now at its peak, the highest or the worst (as you see it) in the past 14 years. More than 49 million people in America, that is one in six, live in hunger. If GM crops are so high producing, please try to first remove hunger in your own country.

Instead of wasting your energies trying to convince the policy makers in India, please devote the same time and effort to eradicate hunger in America.

Also, the US agriculture is one of the most environmentally devastating and ecologically suffocating. US agriculture survives on subsidies. Withdraw the Green Box support, and the US agriculture collapses like a house of cards. Also, the US agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to global warming (if measured as a proportion of the US carbon footprint), it is time the Cornell University shift the focus of its research to its own devastating farming systems. I know the Department of Government at Cornell University is simply a covert USAID operation in the name of research. It is high time your government (and your former department) focuses on its own domestic crisis in agriculture.

You will be doing a great service to your own country. If you think your universities have nothing much to offer for your own country, I am willing to help you. Indian farmers would be too willing to show you the sustainable path. Come, let us work to salvage agriculture in the great lands of the Americas.


Devinder Sharma said...

What a great article, Devinder. Thank you.

I feel things have reached a place where it is so obvious that GMOs are terrible, that that don't provide more food, that they require more pesticides, that I don't see how you can keep from laughing at those suggesting the opposite. What they are saying is a joke. It's nonsense. They've not only been proved wrong endlessly but been proven to be liars in court (France) and need to rig every system they are in (India, EU, US, Canada, ...) to get their stuff passed. They are selling a hoax and one that makes people sick. What a product.

They have lost the debate. It's over. It's been over. It's absurd. All that is left to them is bribery, bullying, buying out departments, breaking the law - the 4 B's.

Maybe if we started laughing, their whole house of cards might collapse. Maybe if people met outside the GEAC and just laughed at them and how corrupt the whole thing is and what a farce, these puffed up bureaucrats who live by narcissism and position might feel a little less powerful, might feel ridiculous instead. People should sings of humiliation:

Oh, so hard tell if it's real food or GMO!
Oh, so hard to see past the bribes, oh!
Oh, Monsanto, give me more, oh!
Oh, Monsanto, line my pocket, oh!
Oh, Monsanto, make it worth my while ... to sell out my country, oh!"

There needs to be some great street theatre acting out what happens in the GEAC meetings or in the universities or in Monsanto's test labs. Monsanto is insane and their products are garbage. The proof is in. How hard should it be to turn this on its head and make a total mockery of them and their criminal practices? Monsanto the Maniac. Biotech bombast. Biotech bunkum. Scientific pond scum.

Linn Cohen-Cole

Rianne ten Veen said...

Thanks for contributing your pound (I mean, MUCH more than the '2p' in English expression) to dispelling the myths put forward by the 'pro-GM' groups... I've just written a complaint to the BBC (UK) re a biased (pro-GM) programme on the radio (see my blog for a copy of my e-mail to the BBC with links to some pretty decent sources. Keep up the great work and God willing one day we'll succeed....

Anonymous said...

As we all know and it won't be long before the whole world knows that that GMOs are the only straw man for which Monsanto is the scarecrow. No lies can keep them up; they both must go.

Shiv Chopra

Anonymous said...

आदरणीय दवेंद्र जी आप जीएम फसलों की असलियत उजागर करके पुण्‍य कार्य कर रहे हैा । इसके लिए आपको जितना भी धन्‍यवाद दिया जाए वह कम होगा । दरअसल यह बहुराष्‍ट्रीय कंपनियों की कुटिल चाल है । ये कंपनियां पूरी दुनिया की खेती-किसानी को अपने कब्‍जे में लेने पर तुली हुई हैं । इसके लिए वे साम, दाम, दंड, भेद सभी उपायों को अपना रही हैं । विश्‍व व्‍यापार संगठन, अंतरराष्‍ट्रीय मुद्र कोष, विश्‍व बैंक, पेंटेंट, बौद्धिक संपदा अधिकार कानून उनके लिए सीढ़ी का कार्य कर रहे हैं । उदाहरण के लिए चोटी की 10 कृषि जैव प्रौद्योगिकी कंपनियां वैश्‍विक बीज बाजार के 67 प्रतिशत हिस्‍से पर कब्‍जा जमाए बैठी हैं । ये सभी कंपनियां विकसित देशों की हैं । बौद्धिक संपदा अधिकार के जरिए हाइब्रिड प्रजाति के बीज तैयार करने के लिए जो शोध किया जा रहा है वह विकसित देशों के धनी किसानों की जरूरतों पर आधारित है । उष्‍ण कटिबंधीय फसलें इस शोधकार्य में पूरी तरह उपेक्षित हैं । जबकि इन फसलों से करोड़ों लघु व सीमांत किसानों की आजीविका जुड़ी हुई है । इन देशों के किसानों को बहुराष्‍ट्रीय कंपनियों के महंगे बीज खरीदने के लिए बाध्‍य होना पड़ रहा है । दूसरे, इससे विविध फसलों के स्‍थान पर कुछेक चुनिंदा फसलों की खेती को बढ़ावा मिल रहा है जिनकी अंतरराष्‍ट्रीय बाजार में भरपूर मांग है । इस प्रक्रिया में पेट के लिए नहीं अपितु बाजार के लिए खेती को बढ़ावा मिला । यही कारण है कि भूखे रहने वालों की संख्‍या तेजी से बढ़ रही है । तीसरे विकासशील देश बहुराष्‍ट्रीय बायोटेक बीज कंपनियों के इशारों पर नाचने लगे हैा । उदाहरण के लिए भारत के कृषि विश्‍वविद्यालय देसी बीजों के बजाए मोनसेंटों जैसी कंपनियों द्वारा चिन्‍हित फसलों पर शोध कार्य कर रहे हैा । वैश्‍विक बीज बाजार पर बहुराष्‍ट्रीय कंपनियों के आधिपत्‍य से जैव विविधता खतरे में पड़ गई है क्‍योंकि सभी देशों पर एक जैसे उन्‍नत बीज अपनाने का दबाव बढ़ता जा रहा है । ये बीज भले ही अधिक उत्‍पादन देते हैं लेकिन जलवायु की अतिशय दशाओं ‍बाढ़, सूखा, अधिक तापमान, के आगे ये शीघ्र ही परास्‍त हो जाते हैं । इसके विपरीत देसी बीज स्‍थानीय कृषि पारिस्‍थितिक दशाओं के अनुरूप ढले होते हैं जिससे वे जलवायु की अतिशय दशाओं को सफलतापूर्वक झेल लेते हैं । फिर इन्‍हें खरीदने के लिए किसानों को मोटी रकम भी नहीं चुकानी पड़ती । भारत में सूखा व बाढ़ रोधी असंख्‍य प्रजातियां प्रचलित रही हैं लेकिन बीज एकाधिकार की बढ़ती प्रवृत्‍ति ने सभी को भुला दिया । बीजों के सहेजने की प्रथा नष्‍ट होने के कारण ही पिछले पांच दशकों में देसी बीजों की एक हजार से अधिक किस्‍में सदा के लिए लुप्‍त हो गईं ।

रमेश कुमार दुबे

Srinivas said...

I think you have been just opposing strongly what the public research and development system is doing. This may not probably achieve anything. Because the other side also have arguments and data set to show. I am not exactly commenting on the article above. But I read many of yours blog where you have undermined the effort of public R&D systems or NARS. Now may I make you remember that you have been able to talk so because the same NARS has worked and made Indian a surplus state from begging bowl. I like the criticism but language of criticism should be proper. Any way India has been independent due to the efforts of NARS. Thats only I can say. Rest everybody is free to express their opinion No restriction on Language. I love my India